Gas taxes are unpopular and insufficient, here are some alternatives

By Aaron Westling

From flailing transit systems to inadequate maintenance, states throughout the country are struggling to adequately fund their transportation infrastructure. Making the problem more difficult is the fact that one of their primary funding mechanisms, the gas tax, is failing to cover added costs. Due to projected revenue decline from increased fuel efficiency and EVs, the political aversion to raising the tax, and looming fiscal cliffs, some state legislatures are beginning to consider how to supplement gas tax revenue to sustainably  fund their transportations systems.

Declining gas tax revenues

State imposed gas taxes in the United States, some of which have been modestly raised over the years, range from 9 cents to 61 cents per gallon while the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993, sits at 18 cents per gallon compared to an average of about $2.40 per gallon in Europe. That 18 cents has lost 71% of its value between 1993 and 2020.

Cumulative Decline in Value of 18.3 Cent Tax Rate Since 1993. Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP)

Around 30% of state-provided highway funds come from gas taxes. But even in states with relatively high tax rates, that revenue is simply not enough. For example, in Pennsylvania, which has one of the highest state gas taxes in the country at 60 cents per gallon, a report from a state Independent Fiscal Office stated that:

 “As a primary source for state transportation funding, gasoline tax revenues that cannot keep pace with rising project costs could cause funding challenges for (the Department of Transportation’s) highway and bridge infrastructure program and limit access to federal reimbursement for project costs.”

This problem is only going to worsen. In 2020, fuel taxes generated around 75% of state transportation revenue, but one study from the Mineta Transportation Institute suggests that by 2040 that percentage is likely to fall to under 25%. Additionally, total user fees paid by drivers now make up the smallest share of highway funding since 1957. States need to begin considering their options.

Mileage-based user fees

One of the most popular ideas to replace or supplement the gas tax is mileage-based user fees. This revenue system charges drivers based on the distance they drive as opposed to charging a tax on fuel. The benefit of this system is that it draws revenue from drivers who use the infrastructure most often, including electric vehicles, which traditionally avoid paying fuel taxes but still contribute to the wear and tear on roads.

In 2021, FHWA funded eight projects to explore new user-based funding streams, including the Eastern Transportation Coalition, which is made up of seventeen states and Washington, DC, exploring the viability of mileage-based user fees. The coalition has produced useful findings including that the public is becoming more comfortable with GPS-enabled technology, that many see mileage-based fees as more fair than the gas tax, and that rural drivers are likely to pay less with mileage-based fees.

While mileage-based fees are gaining popularity and could be a viable alternative to the gas tax, there are still details to be ironed out before these systems can be fully implemented, including concerns around privacy and equity.

Additional EV fees

Some states aren’t waiting for the adoption of mileage-based fees to force EV drivers to pay more to offset lost gas tax revenue. Currently, 33 states impose additional fees on EV drivers, most of which funnel the revenue into general transportation funds. But some, like Colorado, use a portion to support public charging stations.

Advocates of additional EV fees say they are necessary because EVs contribute to the deterioration of roads but do not pay their fair share. Some argue that the fees are equitable because those purchasing EVs tend to be wealthier. However, opponents say that the fees punish consumers who are choosing a more environmentally friendly vehicle and that the fees are disproportionately burdensome.

For example, EV drivers in Texas pay an extra $400 to register their new vehicles, plus $200 each year. At 20 cents per gallon and around 500 gallons per year, the annual fee alone is twice what a typical driver of a gas-fueled car would pay.

Weight-based fees

In the U.S., SUVs and trucks make up more than 80% of new vehicle sales, up from about 52% just a decade ago. This increased market share for large vehicles contributes to externalities such as increased tailpipe emissions, more frequent pedestrian deaths, and, germane to the funding discussion, a drastic increase in road damage. While an increased fee on heavy vehicles would likely do little to curb emissions or reduce traffic violence, it could help offset the increased maintenance costs that are incurred from the abundance of large vehicles. This will become even more important with the introduction of electric trucks and SUVS, which can weigh up to 40% more than traditional ICE vehicles due to their large batteries.

Modest versions of this fee already exist in some parts of the U.S., such as Washington DC and Hawaii, and much higher fees can be found in Europe. In France, a vehicle weighing more than 1,800 kilograms (~4,000 pounds) will be charged an additional €10 for every kilogram above that threshold (about $5 per pound). And in Lyon, heavier vehicles will now be charged more for parking compared to smaller cars.

The conversation around shifting from a gas tax to alternative user-fees is certainly not new, but as states continue to face funding gaps and fuel-efficient vehicles eat into the already dwindling gas tax revenue, alternatives are needed now more than ever.

Photo Credit: Tim Vrtiska via Flickr, unmodified. License.